With nearly perfect weather, fantastic scenery, charming towns and cities, and an enviable laid-back attitude throughout the state, you’ll quickly learn why California has been celebrated by everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Jack Kerouac to pop star Katy Perry.
But don’t let Hollywood fool you – there’s so much more to the state than just beaches and palm trees. There are hundreds of unique places to visit in California, from the art and history museums in San Diego’s Balboa Park to the lush redwoods of San Francisco’s Muir Woods.
Here are some of the state’s most interesting sites and attractions.
USS Midway Museum, San Diego
Visit San Diego Harbor to explore the decks of the USS Midway, a former Navy aircraft carrier decommissioned in 1992. The massive ship was used in both the Vietnam War and the Gulf War before being assigned to its permanent home in Southern California.
From flight simulators and a junior pilot program to an exhibit on navy aircraft and a chance to see what life was like for sailors, the over 1,000-foot-long floating museum offers hours of entertainment and education.
Avalon Canyon, Catalina Island
If you love spending time outdoors but don’t love the idea of a strenuous hike, you’re in luck at Avalon Canyon in Catalina Island. Located near the town of Avalon, the canyon is home to Wrigley Mansion, built by former Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley. The mansion is built in a Georgian Revival style and is home to the Wrigley Memorial Botanical Garden, where many endangered plant species thrive.
Also in the canyon on Catalina Island are the Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve, where you can snorkel, kayak, or paddleboard, and the Hermit Gulch Trailhead, which serves as the starting point for the popular Lone Tree Point Hike. The spot is perfect for couples on a California honeymoon. You can view nearly the entire island if you’re willing to make the almost 1,500-foot elevation gain to the top.
Read: Best Places to Snorkel in California
Celebrity Homes & Haunts, Los Angeles
Anyone who’s anyone in Hollywood probably has a home tucked into the Hollywood Hills, and if they don’t own a house there, they at least have a favorite bar or restaurant not too far from the studios.
Nowhere is more of a unique place to visit in California than a celebrity’s home, and there are plenty of ways to up your chances of spotting your favorite actor or TV host while you’re visiting Los Angeles.
Booking a seat on a Hollywood tour will get you up close and personal with the Hollywood Walk of Fame and celebrity hot spots on Sunset Strip and in Beverly Hills. You’ll also cruise past more than three dozen mega-mansions where the stars live (when they’re not on set, of course.)
Pebble Beach, Monterey
Possibly the most famous place to golf in the United States, Pebble Beach in Monterey is actually home to four golf courses: Del Monte Golf Course; The Links at Spanish Bay; Spyglass Hill Golf Course; and Pebble Beach Golf Links. The latter three overlook the Pacific Ocean.
The fairway of hole eight at Pebble Beach Golf Links is on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by cliffs and ocean spray, so be sure to snap a few photos as you play through the famous seaside course. While it’s not hard to find a golf course on vacation, it’s impossible to find a golf course with views like the ones offered from Pebble Beach’s four courses. Golfing here is certainly one of the most unique things to do in California (and possibly the entire west coast!)
Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara
Napa may be the most well-known California wine region, but visiting the Santa Ynez Valley wineries is one of the most unique things to do in California.
The Santa Ynez American Viticultural Area (AVA) is home to more wineries than anywhere else in Santa Barbara. Because temperatures are cool near the coast and rise as you move closer to the mountains, it’s possible to grow several red and white varieties here, ranging from buttery chardonnays to deeper cabs and merlots.
The Santa Ynez Valley is truly stunning, with rolling hills, roadside fruit and vegetable stands, and colorful sunsets that reflect off the nearby mountains.
Read: Best Beaches in Santa Barbara
La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
Sure, a tar pit may not sound like the most exciting site to see, but this one is one of the most unique places to visit in California.
About 40,000 years ago, downtown L.A. looked a little more prehistoric than it does today, and animals like mammoths and saber-toothed tigers often got stuck in the sticky natural tar that bubbled up from below the earth.
Scientists began excavating the tar pits around 100 years ago, and they’re still making discoveries today. At this large museum, you can see the fossils found in the pits, learn about L.A.’s wild past, and even walk through a tar pit currently under excavation. It’s incredibly interesting for both kids and adults.
Muir Woods, San Francisco
Even if you don’t recognize John Muir’s name, you’ve probably heard his most famous quote, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” While in San Francisco, you can literally follow in his footsteps by heading to Muir Woods.
Here, you can do one of the most unique things to do in California: gaze up at a giant redwood. Some of the redwood trees in Muir Woods are more than 250 feet tall and over 1,000 years old, which you can see by taking a nearly flat 30-minute stroll through the park. Be sure to bring a wide-angle camera lens to get the best shot.
Balboa Park, San Diego
Balboa Park is possibly the most popular tourist attraction in San Diego, and for good reason. It’s home to 17 museums, 10 theatre and performance spaces, a vintage carousel, an art community, and nearly 20 gardens, including a Japanese tea garden and botanical park.
It’s one of the greatest cultural treasures in the Golden State, so whether you hit every museum or just spend 30 minutes exploring the grounds, you’ll find it well worth the visit.
Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles
Look to the skies with a visit to the famous Griffith Observatory, where you can study the stars even in the middle of the day. The observatory’s large planetarium hosts several shows a day led by a live storyteller, and visitors can sit in on a 15-minute presentation on how researchers study and understand light, held every day when the sun reaches its highest point.
Exhibits are for both children and adults, so kids can get hands-on with a Tesla coil or study L.A. through a telescope while adults learn more about prospects for exploring the cosmos.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
You can see sea otters, penguins, sharks, and glow-in-the-dark jellyfish without ever setting foot on a boat at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located on the town’s famous Cannery Row, visiting here is one of the best things to do in Monterey with kids as the aquarium showcases ocean wildlife from throughout the state.
Kids will be amazed by the two-story kelp forest and 90-foot viewing window at the “Open Sea” exhibit, while adults will enjoy learning about the groundbreaking ocean conservation and research programs run through the aquarium.
Visitors of all ages will love sneaking a peek at the quirky, color-changing giant Pacific octopus.
Read: Things to Do in Monterey
Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood, San Francisco
You haven’t really seen the true spirit of the city until you’ve strolled down the streets of Haight Ashbury, which still retain much of their 1960s charm (save for the expensive nearby apartments.)
This region of the city was the birthplace of the state’s hippie counterculture movement, and while it’s not quite as laid-back as it may have been during the “Summer of Love,” it’s still chock-full of independent coffee shops, artisan haberdasheries and apothecaries, and stunning murals around every corner.
It’s one of the most unique places to visit in California and certainly unlike any other neighborhood in the city.
Read: Best Things to Do in Downtown San Francisco
Trans-Catalina Trail, Catalina Island
This challenging trail covers more than 38 miles and gains nearly 10,000 feet in elevation – but don’t worry if you aren’t in peak hiking shape, because more manageable sections of the trail are available to day hikers.
The trail ends at Starlight Beach, a great place to start if you only have a day to spend on the trail. Starting from the Trans-Catalina trail terminus, you can hike as far up the trail as you’d like, and retrace your steps if you start to get tired. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views from the first few minutes in.
Read: Best Family Beaches in California
San Diego Zoo, San Diego
What makes the San Diego Zoo one of the most unique places to visit in California? The answer is easy: more than 4,000 species of animals from around the world call the massive zoo and conservation center home. From koalas to leopards and reindeer, the eight different “ecosystems” of the park house animals from all seven continents.
In addition to wildlife and conservation programs, the zoo also offers sunrise strolls, tram-assisted tours, animal feeding demonstrations, and enough photo ops and play areas to ensure everyone has a great time.
Carmel Mission, Monterey
History buffs need not look far for a unique place to visit in California. Misión de San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, also known as the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum (or just the Carmel Mission,) is 15 minutes south of the town of Monterey in charming Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The mission has a rich history and has been in its current location for nearly 300 years. Be sure to explore the beautifully manicured grounds after admiring the stunning architecture and fascinating relics from the 18th and 19th centuries.
When you’re done exploring the mission, spend time slowly strolling the cobblestone streets of Carmel, one of the best small towns in California. The artist-commune-turned-town is packed with tasting rooms from nearby wineries, gingerbread-style architecture, and enough art galleries to suit any taste.
If you get a bit hungry, stop for pastries at the adorable Carmel Bakery on Ocean Ave, which has been serving up European-style baked goods since 1906.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Santa Barbara
If you thought courthouses couldn’t be beautiful, think again. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is one of the most stunning public buildings in the country, thanks to its Spanish Colonial revival architecture and hand-painted ceilings.
Nearly 100 years old, the building is a National Historic Landmark and offers sweeping views of the coastline from the elevator-accessible “El Mirador” clock tower.
Read: Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara With Kids
Alcatraz, San Francisco
Your trip to Alcatraz starts with a short ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay before arriving at “The Rock,” once home to Alcatraz Prison. The imposing prison was touted to be escape-proof, though you’ll learn on the self-guided audio tour that that particular point is somewhat debatable.
Whether you like history or true crime or are passionate about civil rights struggles, you won’t want to skip the chance to visit this infamous island (which is also known as one of the most haunted places to visit in the world). The trip begins and ends at Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll be able to hear the sounds of the city’s resident sea lions well before you see them.
Old Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara
Established in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans, the 12-acre Old Mission Santa Barbara holds a nine-room museum of Native American artifacts, centuries-old tradesman’s tools, historical photos, and recreations of 17th-century living quarters.
Though it’s still an active parish, visitors are welcome to visit and explore the interiors and grounds, including La Huerta Historic Garden, where friars tend to plants that 18th-century devotees would have grown like olives, pomegranates, guava, and prickly pear. Tours of the gardens need to be booked at least two weeks in advance.
Explore all of these unique places and embark on the vacation of your dreams on a luxury cruise to California. Discover historical landmarks and flashy celebrity homes in port, and experience world-class dining and entertainment on one of our ships. Browse our California cruise itineraries and book your next vacation today.